The Attica Prison riot, also known as the Attica Prison rebellion or Attica Prison uprising, occurred at the Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, New York, United States in 1971.
Based upon prisoners’ demands for better living conditions and political rights, the riot was one of the most well-known and significant uprisings of the Prisoners’ Rights Movement.
On September 9, 1971, two weeks after the killing of George Jackson at San Quentin State Prison, about 1,000 of the Attica prison’s approximately 2,200 inmates rioted and took control of the prison, taking 42 staff hostage.
During the following four days of negotiations, authorities agreed to 28 of the prisoners’ demands, but would not agree to demands for complete amnesty from criminal prosecution for the prison takeover or for the removal of Attica’s superintendent. By the order of Governor Nelson Rockefeller, state police took back control of the prison. When the uprising was over, at least 43 people were dead, including ten correctional officers and civilian employees, and 33 inmates.
Throughout the negotiations, there was leadership and organization among the prisoners. Frank “Big Black” Smith was appointed as head of security, and he also kept the hostages and the observers safe. Additionally, an ardent orator, 21-year-old Elliott James “L.D.” Barkley, was a strong force during the negotiations, speaking with great articulation to the inmates, the camera crews, and outsiders at home. Barkley, just days away from his scheduled release at the time of the riot, was killed during the recapturing of the prison. Assemblyman Arthur Eve testified that Barkley was alive after the prisoners had surrendered and the state regained control; another inmate stated that the officers searched him out, yelling for Barkley, and shot him in the back.
Police shooting down at prisoners in the yard. (Photo credit by William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe)
We are men! We are not beasts and we do not intend to be beaten or driven as such. The entire prison populace, that means each and every one of us here, have set forth to change forever the ruthless brutalization and disregard for the lives of the prisoners here and throughout the United States. What has happened here is but the sound before the fury of those who are oppressed. We will not compromise on any terms except those terms that are agreeable to us. We’ve called upon all the conscientious citizens of America to assist us in putting an end to this situation that threatens the lives of not only us, but of each and every one of you, as well.
Elliott James “L.D.” Barkley, 1971
As speakers like Barkley raised morale, the rebels’ negotiating team of prisoners proposed their requests to the commissioner. The Attica Liberation Faction Manifesto Of Demands is a compilation of complaints written by the Attica prisoners, which speak directly to the “sincere people of society”. It includes 27 demands, such as better medical treatment, fair visitation rights, and an end to physical brutality.
The prisoners also requested better sanitation, improved food quality, and one set of rules for the state among numerous other demands. The manifesto specifically assigns the power to negotiate to five inmates: Donald Noble, Peter Butler, Frank Lott, Carl Jones-El, and Herbert Blyden X. Additionally, the document specifically lists out “vile and vicious slave masters” who oppressed the prisoners such as the New York governor, New York Corrections, and even the United States Courts.
The prisoners continued to unsuccessfully negotiate with Correctional Services Commissioner Russell G. Oswald, and then later with a team of observers that included Tom Wicker, an editor of the New York Times, James Ingram of the Michigan Chronicle, state senator John Dunne, state representative Arthur Eve, civil rights lawyer William Kunstler, and others. Prisoners requested the presence of Minister Louis Farrakhan, National Representative of the Nation of Islam, but he declined.
The situation may have been further complicated by Governor Rockefeller’s refusal to come to the scene of the riot and meet with the inmates, although some later evaluations of the incident would postulate that his absence from the scene actually prevented the situation from deteriorating. Negotiations broke down, and Oswald was unable to make further concessions to the inmates. However, he did not tell them that negotiations had ended and he would take the prison back by force. He even said: “I want to continue negotiations with you.”
Oswald later called Governor Rockefeller and again begged him to come to the prison to calm the riot. After the governor’s refusal, Oswald stated that he would order the State Police to retake the facility by force. Rockefeller agreed with Oswald’s decision. This agreement was later criticized by a commission created by Rockefeller to study the riot and its aftermath. Commons